It happens with every coaching change, and it happened when Dan Mullen arrived at Mississipppi State. Players left. Some of them were expected to be big contributors this season. But they all had one thing in common: None of them were seniors.
All 16 of the MSU seniors recognized prior to Saturday's Egg Bowl stuck with it and then got with Mullen’s program. It’s very important, as we know, for the young guys to buy in and build a strong foundation for the future, but it cannot be overstated how important it was for the senior Bulldogs to do the same.
Following the game, a 41-27 MSU victory to finish the year 5-7 (3-5 SEC) Mullen recalled his first team meeting in January. “I walked into a team meeting room full of hungry guys. Our seniors, we said to them, ‘This is your last opportunity to play here at Mississippi State, and what’s your legacy going to be?’ Those seniors persevered, playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. They never stopped fighting, never stopped battling. …For the rest of their lives, they get to finish their careers (as) champions.”
We heard from RB Anthony Dixon all season about how he wanted to see this team improve and go to a bowl game. Once the bowl game was out, the goal was to get that fifth win, which would be one more than last season.
“Last year we had four wins, and I was telling them to end this year with five would be an improvement. It’d at least be taking a step,” Dixon said. “I feel like we’ve improved, and I can move on saying that for one year to the next, we improved.”
The seniors seem as excited about MSU’s future as anyone, even if they won’t be a direct part of it. WR Brandon McRae said last week that he can’t wait to see the offense take off next year, and this from a guy who saw his role diminished greatly this season—thanks partly to his leg injury and partly to the emergence of freshman Chad Bumphis (above).
As much as the Bulldogs had to rely on youngsters—and I’ll back that up statistically in a moment—they owe a great deal to the senior class for leading the way. Dixon was an unstoppable force, becoming State’s career leader in every major rushing category. McRae was an unending source of encouragement for the underclassmen.
QB Tyson Lee , for all his struggles, never hung his head or stopped believing in what Mullen was preaching. And even though MSU doesn’t have a storied history at the quarterback position, it’s notable that Lee finished in the top 10 in school history in passing yardage (2,963 yards, ninth place), pass attempts (481, ninth) and pass completions (283, eighth), and he finished his career with the best completion percentage of any MSU signal caller (58.8).
OK, now back to those young fellas and some interesting numbers.
• Of MSU’s 1,732 receiving yards this season, 1,035 were by freshmen and sophomores. That’s 59.76 percent.
• Aside from Dixon’s numbers, MSU rushed for 1,340 yards, and 836 of those—or 62.39 percent—came from freshmen and sophomores. If you include Dixon’s numbers, the youngsters accounted for 30.61 percent of the rushing total.
• In the all-purpose yards category—which includes kick and punt returns, interception returns, and fumble returns—freshmen and sophomores accounted for 2,283 of MSU’s 6,545 yards, or 43.13 percent.
• Of MSU’s 817 tackles made, 312 of them came from freshmen and sophomores, or 38.19 percent.
• Of MSU’s 17 interceptions—tied with Ole Miss for most in the SEC—15 of them came from freshmen and sophomores. That’s 88.24 percent.
So there’s a sampling of the future for you. And that’s not even factoring in the many contributions of junior college transfers like WR/KR Leon Berry and DE Pernell McPhee . As Lee said following the Egg Bowl win, "It just shows what can happen in the future."
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